Sadie Holloway, a proud cat parent, is a strong advocate for adopting pets from animal shelters and rescue organizations.
When a family pet dies, parents are faced with the difficult task of explaining to their children what has happened. There is no short answer as to how to support your child through the loss of a pet. Each child is different, and each child will have their own way of coping with the loss of their furry friend.
In his book, Going Home, Finding Peace When Pets Die, New York Times bestselling author Jon Katz offers some tips for how to talk to children about the death of a pet. According to Katz, one of the most important things is for parents to honor and witness each child’s experience of grief and sadness when the pet dies.
1. Teach Your Children Early About the Cycle of Life
There's no need to be morose about death, but Katz suggests talking to children about the cycle of life for animals long before their pets get sick or old. Find ways to help kids understand that pets don’t live as long as people. Understanding the life of cats and dogs and other small critters will make pet loss a little easier to accept if it happens in the child's youth. Hopefully, the child will mature long before a pet dies, but it's OK for children to know that they may have several dogs or cats that they love and lose over their lifetime.
2. Be Gentle and Forthright With Your Children
If a pet is injured or falls ill, let your children know as soon as possible. Tell them about any medications the pet may need to take or any changes to the animal's diet and exercise routines. If the vet will allow it, let the children come to the animal hospital when the pet needs care. Sensitive pet care providers and animal hospitals have experience helping families address pet loss. Sometimes it can be comforting for children to meet the veterinarian and the people who will be providing care for their dying pet. The idea is to let the children know that the family is actively taking care of their cherished friend. Everyone is doing what they can to help the pet maintain a good quality of life. When the pet dies, the children can be assured that everyone did their best and that the pet was deeply loved and cared for until the very end. This can help children cope with any feelings of guilt or anger they may have when the pet passes away.
3. Host Discussions About End-of-Life Issues
There may come a time when parents will need to talk to their children about euthanizing a pet. Katz says, “Including older children in end-of-life decisions for animals can help them deal with the impending loss in a healthy manner. Kids love their pets and are entitled to be involved in the process.” They may not be able to change an inevitable decision, but they will at least be able to understand why the decision to let the pet die peacefully was the most loving thing they could do to ease the animal's pain.
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4. Be Honest When a Pet Dies
If a pet dies when the child is absent, do not put off talking about what has happened. Children are much more aware of what's going on than adults give them credit for. If a pet dies and the adults aren't talking about it, the child may think their feelings are being dismissed. While euphemisms may seem comforting, stories about the pet “going to sleep” aren’t always helpful and can be confusing for children. Children may believe that their animal is still alive somewhere, waiting to return home. Kids of all ages should have the chance to say goodbye to their pets in their own way. They need to experience their grief fully and to heal and find some sort of closure after the pet’s death. Avoidance of talking about pet's death won't ease a child's pain and sadness.
5. Let Children Memorialize Their Pet
Katz recommends that parents actively include their children in honoring the life of the deceased pet family member. Find a quiet time and place to come together to share and listen to each other’s happy memories of the cherished pet. Support family members of all ages in writing poems and tributes to their pets. Don't be afraid to express your own grief and sadness about losing the pet either. Kids look to their parents to see if what they are feeling is normal and OK. Let them know that when they talk about the loss of their animal friend, both tears and laughter are OK. Let them know that there are no right or wrong ways to grieve and that individual members of the family may express their sadness differently. Some ways to come together and honor the deceased pet include drawing pictures, sharing photographs, planning a memorial service, planting a tree, or building a small garden monument in honor of the lost pet.
When a family pet—whether it's a dog, a cat or a lizard dies—parents can find tools and resources to support their children in handling their grief. Pet bereavement is not a taboo subject anymore and there are many books, support groups, and online forums that adults can access to help themselves and their children cope with pet loss grief. Regardless of all the other tools out there, however, remember that the number one source of emotional support and guidance for your children should be you, their parents.
Though it breaks your heart to see your children feeling sad, kids can't be shielded from life’s losses forever. Most children will experience other deaths in their lives (i.e., the loss of family, friends, and relatives to illness, old age, accidents, or other tragic circumstances). Katz says, “The loss of pets can be a window for children into the profound, and inevitable, experiences life has in store for all of us.”
Please feel free to share your experience in helping your children cope with the loss of a family pet.
© 2013 Sadie Holloway